Saturday, June 7, 2008

‘Fitzgerald for life’ as Chicago’s federal prosecutor not a good or practical idea

Is Patrick Fitzgerald destined to be U.S. attorney in Chicago for life?

It's sure starting to seem that way. At summer’s end, he will have been in the Second City for seven years, and Barack Obama has already been pressured into saying he would not seek to replace him if he becomes president.

WHAT MAKES THIS bizarre is that the usual pattern for a U.S. attorney is to be nominated by the sitting president (with the advice of the reigning member of Congress from the president’s political party) for a term of four years.

Then, the prosecutor moves on – usually to a high-paying gig at a powerful law firm where they wind up representing the people who are indicted by their successors in the U.S. attorney’s office.

Some people might be disgusted by the political status quo with regard to federal prosecutors. But the reality is that U.S. attorney was never meant to be a lifetime appointment.

Yet that is what is becoming the situation in Chicago.

FITZGERALD, WHO GOT the job originally because former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., wanted a prosecutor with political ties to no one in Illinois, has had his appointment extended indefinitely because of what were seen by Republican officials as “unique” circumstances related to pending federal investigations of political corruption involving Democrats (and Republicans who were seen as “disloyal” to the rank and file of the GOP).

“Operation Safe Road” and the “Hired Truck Scandal” all ran up strings of criminal convictions under Fitzgerald.

It was during Fitzgerald’s era that former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was prosecuted and convicted, and now some people want to believe current Gov. Rod Blagojevich is destined for the same fate – following the outcome of the federal corruption trial of Antoin “Tony” Rezko.

People who support this indefinite extension say that replacing Fitzgerald would derail any ongoing investigations of corrupt government activity. I can already hear them getting outraged with me for suggesting in this commentary that there is anything odd about keeping Fitzgerald on indefinitely.

YET THE REALITY is that in the past, criminal investigations took their course over periods of several years. It was common for a politico who came under investigation by one U.S. attorney to actually be indicted during the term of his successor.

In short, the U.S. attorney ought to be bigger than one man. In fact, that goes for any law enforcement-related agency. That ultimately was the problem with long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – he remained for way too long and began to see himself as superior to his superiors in the federal government.

Now I’m not suggesting that Fitzgerald is on the verge of becoming Hoover. But I do wonder if there is something wrong with the notion of creating a perpetual prosecutor.

Perhaps we need to start preparing for the day when Fitzgerald moves on from Chicago (after all, he’s a New Yorker by birth and he has no real ties to the Second City). He’s the kind of career prosecutor who enjoys thinking of himself as the ultimate “G-man.”

AT WHAT POINT is he going to want to move on (he’s only 47) with his life?

People had better be prepared for the notion of life after Fitzgerald. Otherwise, we will be confronted with the situation some day where he does leave suddenly, and we will have no clue as to who should be the chief prosecutor for Northern Illinois.

The simple fact is that government (like any other institution) is filled with a wide variety of people – some of whom are in the political racket to use influence for the public good and some who see the public good as having potential to benefit themselves.

Whether or not Fitzgerald is in place is not going to scare anyone away from committing so-called corrupt acts. The people who do these things usually have no clue there is anything illegal about their activity, or they are so convinced of their superior intellect that they think they will be the one who gets away with it.

THE IDEA THAT Fitzgerald is irreplaceable to the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago is ridiculous. We need to accept that fact.

The bottom line?

The day will come when Patrick Fitzgerald leaves Chicago. The city will live. But we run the risk of chaos that could hurt the city (similar to the mess that was left when Richard J. Daley died in December 1976) if we don’t start thinking now about who will someday replace him.


EDITOR’S NOTES: How long is a man who has gone after the Mob in New York and Osama bin Laden ( going to be content professionally by chasing after City Hall geeks?

Some ‘blasts from the past,’ as Fitzgerald ( has wracked up some respect for his ( prosecutorial work.


Anonymous said...

Fitzgerald does have ties to Chicago, or -at least- to Illinois now. His in-laws live in the area.

Anonymous said...

"It hasn’t been updated in a couple of months, but ( Patrick Fitzgerald shares some of his thoughts with his own weblog."

That is so not his own weblog.

Gregory Tejeda said...

I stand corrected. The reference to the weblog is now deleted. My apologies for any confusion I may have caused to people reading this commentary.

Anonymous said...

His "in-laws" live in the area? When did he get married? (He probably kept it very, very private for obvious reasons)

Levois said...

I've read columns that suggested that he should run for governor. Not sure that'll work however.